Monday, March 30, 2009

Papers and More Papers

As I prepare to leave town for the AAH conference in Manchester (that's the original British Manchester, not one of those upstart Manchesters that seem to exist in every eastern state here), my Intro to Modern students are in the throes of preparing their class papers.
They have the option of doing either an article comparison, which is intended to hone their analytical skills, or a research paper on a topic to be approved by me. The first time I taught this class, there were quite a few research papers, some of them remarkably good. Last semester there were not very many and some of those were evidently by students who needed further guidance on just what a research paper is, but there were also some outstanding papers. This semester the research papers will again be rather few, but I think they will be good. I will be getting one on Czech cubism, one on Croatian naive painting, one on the relationship of gay sexuality to the work of Rauschenberg, Johns, and Warhol, one on Picasso's Blue Period (this is an alluring topic for students, I have noticed), one on Magritte and philosophy, one on Magritte and Dali (I wait to see exactly where this goes), one on Abstract Expressionism, and one on Malevich and Suprematism.
A few papers will be coming in tomorrow to give me something to read on the plane, but most of them, I am sure, will be appearing in my box next Tuesday.
My Realism and Impressionism students have already done all their papers, while the Czech Modernism seminar has just turned in their rough drafts, which I have not had any time to examine. I suppose I might read those on the plane too.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Baudelaire and Clark

I may complain a bit from time to time about infelicitous things in my students' exams and the like, but really I do have a very satisfactory group (well, three groups since I teach three classes) this semester.
While the number of things I need to get done (prep, grading, journal articles, etc.) tends to prompt feelings of alarm and angst, actually sitting down to grade the second batch of Realism and Impressionism papers has been quite pleasant. Nearly the entire class writes pretty well, and nearly all of them think through the material with admirable ability. In fact, nobody is having any serious problems, although I daresay some of them would like to get a somewhat better grade than they are earning. Thus, while I was a bit perturbed to find that the first two papers I read (examining Baudelaire's "The Painting of Modern Life" in conjunction with two chapters by T. J. Clark) failed to mention Baudelaire at all, those papers were generally all right in other respects. And the best papers in the class are really enjoyable, combining well-chosen quotations from Baudelaire and Clark with pertinent images and supple analysis of art and texts.
This makes me feel, temporarily, content.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Joy of Exams

While generally speaking, I think it's incumbent upon me to encourage my students, and while on the whole they are doing pretty well, there are always times when they invite their own doom and even (dare I say it?) some ridicule.
I always do a section of term definitions on my Intro to Modern midterm. Define twelve terms that relate to modern art, for one point each--given that these are all terms covered in class and that the book has a glossary defining most of them, how hard can this really be? Yet somehow this is a thing even my best students tend to have some trouble with. I think only one person thus far this semester has gotten full points.
I thought, for instance, that this semester I had really stressed the difference between Orientalism and Japonisme, because the majority of students define Orientalism incorrectly. But apparently I really stressed the difference between Orientalism and Primitivism (also a problem area), so while no one this semester is confusing that pair, most of the definitions for Orientalism are really definitions of Japonisme. This would not be so odd if it weren't that Orientalism is such a major theme in the academic world these days and I would have thought my students (unlike me) might have imbibed the works of Edward Said with their mothers' milk. I guess Orientalism is more the province of graduate students than of undergrads. I will, thus, keep trying to make clear that Orientalism generally involves eroticization of "exotic" foreign cultures, particularly Muslim cultures but also potentially Hindu and Far Eastern cultures. At least, that's Orientalism in 19th and early 20th century art. And it's not as though we haven't looked at a good many examples.
The very term Avantgarde is, for some reason, also problematic. A certain number of people always do get this right without the slightest difficulty, but a strangely large number always suppose it's a specific movement, or that it's "a new country's art movement" or some other odd thing.
And again, despite my continued efforts to clarify the meaning of Nonobjective art, students continue to define it as "art without a focus" and art that can mean different things to different people. I think some of them probably understand the term better than they are able to define it, but very few seem to state that it's art that doesn't depict something you can see out there in the real world. They don't seem to connect it with Malevich's Black Square (which they reserve for their definitions of Suprematism) or with Kandinsky's later work. Maybe I should make them define Nonobjective later in the semester, when they've seen more examples.
Of course, there are always some definitions that are simply humorous.
"Supermatism--It was an art movement that would just use simple geographic shapes to depict their work." I actually gave partial credit for this because despite the wording, it's clear the writer has some idea what Suprematism is. Anyone (myself included) might accidentally write "geographic" instead of "geometric." All the same, I'm envisioning Malevich attempting to depict the Black Square by means of a map of Moscow or Novosibirsk.
I guess Malevich will keep us amused. And so will all that fuzzy-looking subjective Nonobjective art. At least everyone seems clear on what Pointillism is, and nearly everyone can say something reasonable about Fauvism, despite the paucity of references to the term meaning "wild beast-ism".

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Spring Arrives, Sort Of

It's Spring Break, so therefore it must be spring. Actually, there seems to be some truth in this (never mind that spring isn't officially here), given that the temperature immediately soared into the 70s, a rather startling development given that the beginning of last week was down well below freezing and with reported wind chills in the negative degrees. I might, of course, have enjoyed the brief warm weather had it not been right when I wanted to devote myself to long-put-off projects like filing, spring cleaning, and tax preparation, and as the heat for the building was still on, my apartment was sweltering even with the windows wide open.
The sweaty weather has departed, leaving us with a more seasonally suitable cool and rainy spell that is well enough suited to the grading of the large stack of midterms that awaited me upon my return from CAA (which, being in Los Angeles, was also an encounter with above-70 weather but at least not very sweatily so).
Thus far the midterms for the 19th-century class are not quite up to the standard of the papers. They are not bad, but I have not read one yet that will be above a B+. There are some commonalities in what I'm reading that suggest the textbook is weaker than I thought on relating the art to the socio-political context--or simply that aspects of what it does say go right by. (This was a take-home exam.) For instance, I did think it was pretty clear that Napoleon and Napoleon III are not the same person, and that while the 19th century saw repeated revolutionary activity in France, the French Revolution itself was in the 18th century. Still, often a stack of exams magically clumps itself and all the best ones or worst ones are together. If those I've done so far prove to be the worst, I will be very content.
There are, however, stacks of other things to get done this week besides the exams, so I must return to my labors.

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